Surrogate Attacks

Random Lengths News | March 23, 2006
Top officials in the Bush administration have often complained that news coverage focuses too much on negative events in Iraq and fails to devote enough attention to positive developments. Yet the White House has rarely picked direct fights with U.S. news media during this war. The main PR strategy relies on surrogates -- and we’re likely to see a lot more media-bashing on behalf of the president as this year goes on.

In the midst of a war that has become very unpopular, an evident tactic among the war’s supporters is to blame news outlets. For the most part, President Bush has left it to others to scapegoat the media.

A revealing moment -- dramatizing the pro-war division of labor -- came on Wednesday, during Bush’s nationally televised appearance in Wheeling, West Virginia. On the surface, the format resembled a town hall, but the orchestration was closer to war rally. (According to White House spokesperson Scott McClellan, the local Chamber of Commerce had distributed 2,000 tickets while a newspaper in the community gave out 100.) It fell to a woman who identified herself as being from Columbus, Ohio, to give the Wheeling event an anti-media jolt.

Her husband “has returned from a 13-month tour in Tikrit,” she said. And then came the punch: “He has brought back several DVDs full of wonderful footage of reconstruction, of medical things going on. And I ask you this from the bottom of my heart for a solution to this, because it seems that our major media networks don’t want to portray the good.”

She added: “They just want to focus ... on another car bomb or they just want to focus on some more bloodshed or they just want to focus on how they don’t agree with you and what you’re doing, when they don’t even probably know how you’re doing what you’re doing anyway. But what can we do to get that footage on CNN, on Fox, to get it on Headline News, to get it on the local news?... It portrays the good. And if people could see that, if the American people could see it, there would never be another negative word about this conflict.”

The audience punctuated the woman’s statement with very strong applause and then a standing ovation. But rather than pile on, Bush adopted an air of restraint.

“Just got to keep talking,” he advised. “Word of mouth, there’s blogs, there’s Internet, there’s all kinds of ways to communicate, which is literally changing the way people are getting their information. And so if you’re concerned, I would suggest that you reach out to some of the groups that are supporting the troops, that have gotten Internet sites, and just keep the word moving.”

In effect, Bush is holding the coat of those who go after the news media on his behalf. A vast array of pro-war partisans constantly accuse the media of anti-war and anti-Bush biases -- with the accusations routinely amplified in the mass-media echo chamber. Cranking up the volume are powerhouse outlets like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard, legions of high-profile loyalist pundits, and literally hundreds of radio talk-show hosts across the country who have political outlooks similar to Rush Limbaugh’s.

With the current war less popular than ever, it’s never been more important for war backers to blame the media.

During the last several years of the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration went public with a much more heavy-handed approach, dispatching Vice President Spiro Agnew to make a series of speeches that denounced critical news coverage.

In 1969, Agnew started out by blasting American TV networks, which could be counted on one hand at the time. Television news, he said, came from a “tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men.” Then the vice president turned his ire on certain newspapers, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, which were not in the Nixon administration’s political corner.

With its war policies unraveling in Iraq -- and in the domestic political arena of the United States -- the Bush administration may continue to avoid directly attacking the press. But, with winks and nods from the White House, some of the president’s boosters will be eager to blame news media for Republican difficulties as the midterm congressional elections loom larger on the horizon.
Norman Solomon’s latest book is War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. For information, go to:

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